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Interview with Alison Gaylin 2014

Alison Gaylin  promo image

Alison Gaylin's debut,  Hide Your Eyes, was nominated for an Edgar Award in the Best First Novel category. Her critically acclaimed suspense novels have been published in such countries as the UK, France, Germany, The Netherlands, Norway and Japan. She has been nominated for the ITW Thriller, Anthony and RT Awards and won the Shamus Award for AND SHE WAS, the first book in the Brenna Spector series. Here, Alison talks to Chris High about the novel.

Brenna Spector has Hyperthymestic Syndrome. What made you decided to ascribe the condition to her and how did you come across it?

I read a magazine article about hyperthymestic syndrome – also known as superior autobiographical memory -- back in 2007. The whole idea of it terrified me. I didn’t see it so much as the ability to remember as the inability to forget. I imagined what it would be like to remember every day of my life in perfect detail and with all five senses, whether I wanted to or not – pretty scary, but as I saw it, a great way, as a writer, to explore the power of memory. As far as Brenna went, I thought having hyperthymestic syndrome would aid her tremendously as a private investigator, but would wreak havoc on her personal life. She’s the ultimate haunted character – with her own past a constant and often unwelcome companion. 

How much research did you undertake into the condition, what did you learn from your research that you didn’t know previously and what measures are being put in place to assist those who have the condition?

The first piece on the condition that I know of was written in 2006, in the UC Irvine Medical Journal. I read that, as well as some other pieces about it. The thing that struck me most was how visceral and invasive the memories are. There are very few cases of it – a little more than a dozen, so I felt like I could explore it a lot with my imagination; make it “my own.”  I didn’t want to get too far into the research – I’m writing crime fiction, after all, and I didn’t want to appropriate other peoples’ stories in creating Brenna, who is a purely fictional character. I do know that some of the people who have hyperthymesia are able to compartmentalize the memories, but I didn’t give Brenna that ability; it would make her life too easy.

How difficult was it for you to maintain such a high velocity pace throughout And She Was?

I’m so glad you felt that way about the book. I have to say, I do a lot of rewriting and streamlining of my books – and And She Was is a great example of that. I cut more than 200 pages out of the first draft  -some were rewritten, but still – and I’m pretty merciless with my rewrites. If a scene doesn’t further plot or character, I cut it, no matter how much fun it was for me to write, because really, nobody cares about those scenes other than me.  “Kill your darlings” is my motto.

In personality, Trent is the polar opposite of Brenna. How did their relationship develop for you as a writer?

I love writing Trent.   I have a Trent file in my laptop and whenever I hear a great, incredibly dorky turn of phrase, I put it in there. But I think he would be unbearable to both Brenna and readers if he wasn’t really good at his job. He’s a hard worker and smart and very loyal to Brenna – and there’s a nobility in that. Also, Trent and Brenna’s relationship is pretty uncomplicated. For someone who is dealing with so many complicated relationships – both past and present – he’s kind of a safe haven.  I’ve had a few people suggest that Trent and Brenna hook up in a later book, but boy that is really hard for me to imagine. For one thing, she’d never be able to forget it!

What decided you upon making Brenna a PI rather than a Detective?

I wanted her to be more of a loner, living by her own rules, and I wanted her to be able to dive into cases without worrying about going through proper channels, dealing with police department politics, etc.  I also have an arc that involves her sister that continues through the next two books – with a lot of family secrets that she winds up uncovering. If she were a police detective, she’d never be able to get the time off she needs in order to solve her own, personal mystery.

There are some deep rooted psychological bonds developed amongst the characters. Were the different strands difficult to tie together?

Surprisingly for me, no. I had more characters on the canvas in earlier drafts, but only kept the ones with real, strong ties to the other characters. It’s those ties that I hope advance the plot, so once I worked all that out, the book came together. Brenna’s relationships all turned out to be more complex  than I initially imagined. At first, for instance, Brenna and her daughter Maya had a basically normal, happy relationship – but that became much more fraught with tension as I took her memory into account. 

How far in advance do you plan your novels?

With the Brenna books, I’m taking notes for the next one as I write the first. The fun thing about writing them is, lines and scenes that come across as throwaway in one book will have significance in the next, particularly as Brenna remembers them all, so I need to figure that out ahead of time.

What is the most satisfying aspect of writing a novel and, conversely, which part do you find the most difficult?

Most satisfying without a doubt is Finishing. Like everyone else, I love that Dorothy Parker quote: “I hate writing, but I like having written.” The most difficult, for me, is starting. I’m very insecure and full of self-doubt, so typing out those first few pages – making that commitment – is scary.

Do you have any writing superstitions or routines?

Other than hopeless addictions to coffee and social media and the attention span of a magpie, I don’t think there’s anything that characterizes my writing routine. I have a home office, but I also write in coffee shops, busses, trains… a lot of my books have been written while mildly carsick.

What’s next?

The next book in the Brenna Spector series, Into The Dark, will be released in the UK next year. The third book, Stay With Me, came out in the US this past June. I’m currently working on a standalone novel for Harper Collins called What Remains of Me, in which the main character is a convicted murderer.

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If you would like to comment on this interview with Alison Gaylin in 2014, please feel free to contact me - GUESTBOOK

“Writing gets me away for a while' from this world and into one where I, alone, can make or
break the rules as I see fit.” - Chris High 2003.
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